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Justin Timberlake Exits His Imperial Period with a Thud on 'Man of the Woods'

Evan Sawdey
Photo: Ryan McGinley

At the peak of his powers, Justin Timberlake could probably get away with a confused backwoods-pop hybrid like this. As it stands, people are seeing it for what it is: the most misguided album of his career.

Man of the Woods
Justin Timberlake

RCA

2 Feb 2018

"I guess I would describe it as modern Americana with 808s."
-- Justin Timberlake, Behind: Man of The Woods (16 January 2018)

Once a disco ball-smashing king, the truth of the matter is this: Justin Timberlake is no longer in his Imperial Period -- which is apparent to just about everyone except Justin Timberlake.

During the third episode of Slate's Hit Parade podcast, pop critic Chris Molanphy refers to the Imperial Period as that rare time during an artist's career where they are simultaneously at their most popular as well as their most culturally influential, a perfect meshing of artistry and commercial viability. During this time, literally any single that the artist releases turns into an immediate smash and likely becomes part of the cultural conversation. In the case of Elton John's Imperial Period, the quick followup to his iconic radio staple Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy was an album that was so rushed the label didn't even have time to find a good photo to use as the cover. It still went platinum.

In the episode, Molanphy delves deep into the years-long spans where both pop icons Elton John and George Michael seemed capable of doing no wrong before tabloid scandals removed that sheen off of their hitmaking veneer. Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston had very memorable Imperial Periods, as did Lady Gaga and Katy Perry -- although both of those present-day divas are noticeably on the decline now, no longer able to conquer the radio through sheer force of will. Make no mistake: they can still have hits from time to time, but no longer with any sort of regularity. One your decade-defining Imperial Period is over, hitting the Top 40 or dominating an entertainment news cycle is no longer given that it once was.

Timberlake's fifth album, Man of the Woods, comes out far outside of his own Imperial Period, which can be found between 2006 and 2009. During this time, his Timbaland-produced collection of dirty electro jams called Futuresex/LoveSounds continued the delicious tradition of watching a manufactured pop star discovering (and owning) their sexuality, adding a bit of naughtiness to an existing property that was once considered "safe". Britney, Bieber, Miley -- they've all found success during this prime, and Timberlake used his new persona to "bring sexy back" and in turn line up three chart-toppers back-to-back-to-back before lending his voice to any artist that would pay to have him. 50 Cent, Madonna, T.I., Ciara -- it didn't matter; every song he was on hit the Billboard Top 10. He was then everywhere: guesting on Saturday Night Live, bro-ing out with Jimmy Fallon, and slowly turning into a respected film actor. He wasn't just a pop star anymore: he was a writ-large entertainer, capable of doing no wrong. Your aunt probably thought he was cute.

Yet while his overdue comeback album The 20/20 Experience was heralded in most circles for its moves away from the dance-pop that made him a star, the aura had faded somewhat, as a trendsetter like Timberlake was now seemingly following trends, which in turn left his ill-advised sequel album -- The 20/20 Experience (Part 2) -- to flounder in a sea of stale beats and drawn-out song lengths. Perhaps he had used all his creative capital, or perhaps his audience had moved on to younger, hipper idols. No matter the cause, the luster had faded whether he wanted to admit it or not: his vanity record label failed to produce any hits, his box office record was decidedly hit-or-miss, and while "Can't Stop the Feeling" was an Oscar-nominated hit from his Trolls movie, that Max Martin-produced feel-good summer anthem turned out to be less of a change of direction and more of a fluke smash one-off. His Imperial Period was over, plain and simple.

So despite all the rhetoric surrounding its preview singles, Man of the Woods comes in with virtually no set expectations, as it could be a modern electro/trap influenced pop album just as easily as it could be a personal, folksy country set. Strangely, Timberlake actually tries to have it both ways on this record, melding rev'd-up dive bar licks with funky Neptunes-styled beats, all while telling stories of just how good he is at sex while also casting himself as a family man who remembers where he's from. It's a grab bag of personas and half-baked ideas that were just thrown together because, well, he's Justin Timberlake, and why wouldn't his fans eat it up? "Y'all can't do better than this," he brags at the start of "Midnight Summer Jam", and it's a confusing statement to attach to a song that is nothing more than a repetitious rhythm guitar workout that rolls on for four minutes with little variation. If this all sounds odd and thematically confusing, that's because it is: over the course of 16 tracks, it's clear that Man of the Woods has absolutely no idea what it wants to be.

On the opening track and lead single, Timberlake implores someone to "put your filthy hands all over me", which is a sentiment that doesn't sound nearly as sexy as he thinks it does. The basslines are funky and nimble, but the keyboards are metallic and squelchy, creating a weird tension most stars would solve with charisma and performance. Heck, even Timberlake could've gone that route, but he doesn't this time out, instead shouting out that his "Haters gonna say it's fake!" before assuring his listeners that it's all "So. Real". In the album's opening trio of songs, Timberlake is at his most ego-centric, craving validation for how utterly authentic he thinks he's being (i.e. how he's got that "sauce"). He may think he's setting himself up as some world-dominating pop icon, but the whole thing reeks of desperation, or at least a misguided sense of self.

Perhaps his listeners would be more forgiving of all this peacocking if Timberlake hadn't turned into such a garbage lyricist. Throughout the record, he finds himself falling on obvious cliché ("I'm just one man / Doing the best that I can" he says in the chorus of "Livin' Off the Land"), misconstruing classic quotes ("If you want to make God smile, make plans" he waxes during closer "Young Man"), and coining euphemisms that no one asked for ("Ooh, I love your pink / You like my purple / That color right between those / That's where I worship" he says during "Sauce"). By the time he shoehorns in a reference to The Walking Dead during another song about his sexual agility ("Supplies"), one has to wonder what the point of this whole exercise is.

While the Neptunes are the primary producers here, Timberlake's stature is such that no one has the ability to tell him no, resulting in numbers where it sounds like the same instrumentation was looped three or four times in a row and each song rolls on for a minute too long (which is a sharp contrast from The 20/20 Experience (Part 2) where about three minutes could be shaved off of each song). At times, he stumbles upon a great new aesthetic: "Say Something" is a surprisingly potent acoustic strummer with his country buddy Chris Stapleton that hovers around the idea of being a folk-rock anthem but ends up refusing to do anything even remotely interesting with its lyrics.

Stapleton hangs around a bit on this album, playing guitar on "Filthy" and co-writing the unpretentious stay-in-bed number "Morning Light", which may very well be one of the best things on here. Even with an obvious chorus that begins with "'cos I'm in love with you", the song takes its time and stretches out a bit, Timberlake sounding relaxed here. Yet when Alicia Keys steps in with her verse, her warm voice makes it all sound so easy and effortless, keeping with the moment instead of forcing it like Timberlake so often does. And while the mid-tempo disco sheen of "Montana" is certainly serviceable, who would've guessed that a breezy throwaway like "Wave" would end up being one of the best songs on here? With a quirky little rhythm guitar riff and video game plinks and boops on the chorus, this number about enjoying an island vacation captures Timberlake having absolutely effortless fun, sounding genuinely relaxed and in a bit of a goofy mood. It sounds unpretentious. It sounds authentic. You could even venture so far as to say that it's "So. Real."

But a handful of decent songs do not a classic album make, much less a good one. While Timberlake can't be faulted for wanting to try something genuinely new this far into his career, the laziness of the productions and overall misguided lyrics make for an awkward fit, as Man of the Woods clearly has a high opinion of itself, even if critics have so far been noticeably less kind. Had Timberlake released this during his Imperial Period, it would've been an outright hit, and the haters could be dismissed for calling it fake. Instead, Man of the Woods will soon be referred to as what it truly is: Timberlake's worst album to date.

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